Title: The Handmaid's Tale.
Author: Margaret Atwood.
Genre: Literature, fiction, dystopian fiction, alternative history, totalitarian regimes, feminism, sexuality, religion.
Publication Date: 1985.
Summary: The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one option: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like all dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither OIffred's nor the two men on which her future hangs.
My rating: 8.5/10.
♥ There I sit in the chair, with the lights off, in my red dress, hooked and buttoned. You can think clearly only with your clothes on.
♥ Time to take stock.
I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without shoes. I have trouble remembering what I used to look like. I have viable ovaries. I have one more chance.
But something has changed, now, tonight, Circumstances have altered.
I can ask for something. Possibly not much, but something.
Men are sex machines, said Aunt Lydia, and not much more. They only want one thing. You must learn to manipulate them, for your own good. Lead them around by the nose, that is a metaphor. It's nature's way, God's device. It's the way things are.
♥ The interviews with people still alive then were in colour. The one I remember best was with a woman who had been the mistress of a man who had supervised one of the camps where they put the Jews, before they killed them. In ovens, my mother said; but there weren't any pictures of the ovens, so I got some confused notion that these deaths had taken place in kitchens. There is something especially terrifying to a child in that idea. Ovens means cooking, and cooking comes before eating. I thought these people had been eaten. Which in a way I suppose they had been.
♥ I lie on the floor, breathing too fast, then slower, evening out my breathing, as in the exercises, for giving birth. All I can hear now is the sound of my own heart, opening and closing, opening and closing, opening.
♥ Well. Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat's-ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they'd not long since been rooted out. There is something subversive about this garden of Serena's, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silences will clamour to be heard, though silently. A Tennyson garden, heavy with scent, languid; the return of the word swoon. Light pours down upon it from the sun, true, but also heat rises, from the flowers themselves, you can feel it: like holding your hand an inch above an arm, a shoulder. It breathes, in the warmth, breathing itself in. To walk through it in these days, of peonies, of pinks and carnations, makes my head swim.
♥ Did the sight of my ankle make him lightheaded, faint, at the checkpoint yesterday, when I dropped my pass and let him pick it up for me? No handkerchief, no fan, I use what's handy.
Winter is not so dangerous. I need hardness, cold, rigidity, not this heaviness, as if I'm a melon on a stem, this liquid ripeness.
♥ They get sick a lot, these Wives of the Commanders. It adds interest to their lives. As for us, the Handmaids and even the Marthas, we avoid illness. The Marthas don't want to be forced to retire, because who knows where they go? You don't see that many old women around any more. And as for us, any real illness, anything lingering, weakening, a loss of flesh or appetite, a fall of hair, a failure of the glands, would be terminal. I remember Cora, earlier in the spring, staggering around even though she had the flu, holding onto the doorframes when she thought no one was looking, being careful not to cough. A slight cold, she said when Serena asked her.
Serena herself sometimes take a few days off, tucked up in bed. Then she's the one to get the company, the Wives rustling up the stairs, clucking and cheerful; she gets the cakes and pies, the jelly, the bouquets of flowers from their gardens.
They take turns. There is some sort of list, invisible, unspoken. Each is careful not to hog more than her share of the attention.
♥ What had I been expecting, behind that closed door, the first time? Something unspeakable, down on all fours perhaps, perversions, whips, mutilations? At the very least some minor sexual manipulation, some bygone peccadillo now denied him, prohibited by law and punishable by amputation. To be asked to play Scrabble, instead, as if we were an old married couple, or two children, seemed kinky in the extreme, a violation too in its own way. As a request it was opaque.
..I thought he might be toying, some cat-and-mouse routine, but now I think that his motives and desires weren't obvious even to him. They had not yet reached the level of words.
&^hearts; Staring at the magazine, as he dangled it before me like fishbait, I wanted it. I wanted it with a force that made the ends of my fingers ache. At the same time I saw this longing of mine as trivial and absurd, because I'd taken such magazines lightly enough once. I'd read them in dentists' offices, and sometimes on planes; I'd bought them to take to hotel rooms, a device to fill in empty time while I was waiting for Luke. After I'd leafed through them I would throw them away, for they were infinitely discardable, and a day or two later I wouldn't be able to remember what had been in them.
Though I remember now. What was in them was promise. They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities, extending like the reflections in two mirrors set facing one another, stretching on, replica after replica, to the vanishing point. They suggested one adventure after another, one wardrobe after another, one improvement after another, one man after another. They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome and transcended, endless love. The real promise in them was immortality.
This was what he was holding, without knowing it.
♥ Why do you have this? I asked him.
Some of us, he said, retain an appreciation for the old things.
But these were supposed to have been burned, I said. There were house-to-house searches, bonfires...
What's dangerous in the hands of the multitudes, he said, with what may or may not have been irony, is safe enough for those whose motives are...
Beyond reproach, I said.
He nodded gravely. Impossible to tell whether or not he meant it.
♥ I didn't want to push him, too far, too fast. I know I was dispensable. Nevertheless I said, too softly, How about your Wife?
He seemed to think about that. No, he said. She wouldn't understand. Anyway, she won't talk to me much any more. We don't seem to have much in common, these days.
So there it was, out in the open: his wife didn't understand him.
That's what I was there for, then. The same old thing. It was too banal to be true.
♥ But I can't help seeing. Right in front of us the van pulls up. Two Eyes, in grey suits, leap from the opening double doors at the back. They grab a man who is walking along, a man with a briefcase, an ordinary-looking man, slam him back against the black side of the van. He's there a moment, splayed out against the metal as if stuck to it; then one of the Eyes moves in on him, does something sharp and brutal that doubles him over, into a limp cloth bundle. They pick him up and heave him into the back of the van like a sack of mail. Then they are inside also and in the doors are closed and the van moves on.
It's over, in seconds, and the traffic on the street resumes as if nothing has happened.
What I feel is relief. It wasn't me.
♥ She disapproved of Luke, back then. Not of Luke but of the fact that he was married. She said I was poaching, on another woman's ground. I said Luke wasn't a fish or a piece of dirt either, he was a human being and could make his own decisions. She said I was rationalizing. I said I was in love. She said that was no excuse. Moira was always more logical than I am.
♥ You had to take those pieces of paper with you when you went shopping, though by the time I was nine or ten most people used plastic cards. Not for the groceries though, that came later. It seems so primitive, totemic even, like cowrie shells. I must have used that kind of money myself, a little, before everything went on the Compubank.
I guess that's how they were able to do it, in the way they did, all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand. If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult.
It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the President and machine-gunned Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.
Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.
I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?
That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on.
Look out, said Moira to me, over the phone. Here it comes.
Here what comes? I said.
You wait, she said. They've been building up to this. It's you and me up against the wall, baby. She was quoting an expression of my mother's, but she wasn't intending to be funny.
♥ We stood in a cluster, on the steps outside the library. We didn't know what to say to one another. Since none of us understood what had happened, there was nothing much we could say. We looked at one another's faces and saw dismay, and a certain shame, as if we'd been caught doing something we shouldn't.
It's outrageous, one woman said, but without belief. What was it about this that made us feel we deserved it?
♥ When I'd finished, she said, Tried getting anything on your Compucard today?
Yes, I said. I told her about that too.
They've frozen them, she said. Mine too. The collective's too. Any account with an F on it instead of an M. All they needed to do is push a few buttons. We're cut off.
But I've got over two thousand dollars in the bank, I said, as if my own account was the only one that mattered.
Women can't hold property any more, she said. It's a new law. Turned on the TV today?
No, I said.
It's on there, she said. All over the place. She was not stunned, the way I was. In some strange way she was gleeful, as if this was what she'd been expecting for some time and now she'd been proven right. She even looked more energetic, more determined. Luke can use your Compucount for you, she said. They'll transfer your number to him, or that's what they say. Husband or male next of kin.
But what about you? I said. She didn't have anyone.
I'll go underground, she said. Some of the gays can take over our numbers and buy us things we need.
But why? I said. Why did they?
Ours is not to reason why, Moira said. They had to do it that way, our Compucounts and the jobs both at once. Can you picture the airports, otherwise? They don't want us going anywhere, you can bet on that.
♥ It's only a job, he said, trying to soothe me.
I guess you get all my money, I said. And I'm not even dead. I was trying for a joke, but it came out sounding macabre.
Hush, he said. He was still kneeling on the floor. You know I'll always take care of you.
I thought, already he's starting to patronize me. Then I thought, already you're starting to get paranoid.
I know, I said. I love you.
♥ The army was there, and everything.
Then I remembered something I'd seen and hadn't noticed, at the time. It wasn't the army. It was some other army.
♥ No mother is ever, completely, a child's idea of what a mother should be, and I suppose it works the other way around as well. But despite everything, we didn't do badly by one another, we did as well as most.
I wish she were here, so I could tell her I finally know this.
♥ ..he'd stepped off the path, onto the lawn, to breathe in the humid air which stinks of flowers, of pulpy growth, of pollen thrown into the wind in handfuls, like oyster spawn into the sea. All this prodigal breeding.
♥ We still have... he said. But he didn't go on to say what we still had. It occurred to me that he shouldn't' be saying we, since nothing that I knew of had been taken away from him.
We still have each other, I said. It was true. Then why did I sound, even to myself, so indifferent?
He kissed me then, as if now I'd said that, things could get back to normal. But something had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me.
He doesn't mind this, I thought. He doesn't mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other's, any more. Instead, I am his.
Unworthy, unjust, untrue. But that is what happened.
So Luke: what I want to ask you now, what I need to know is, Was I right? Because we never talked about it. By the time I could have done that, I was afraid to. I couldn't afford to lose you.
♥ I print the phrase carefully, copying it down from inside my head, from inside my closet. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Here, in this context, it's neither prayer nor command, but a sad graffiti, scrawled once, abandoned. The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its power, the power of the words it contains. Pen Is Envy, Aunt Lydia would say, quoting another Centre motto, warning us away from such objects. And they were right, it is envy. Just holding it is envy. I envy the Commander his pen. It's one more thing I would like to steal.
The Commander take the smile-button page from me and looks at it. "That's not real Latin," he says. "That's just a joke."
.."But what did it mean?" I say.
"Which?" he says. "Oh. It meant, 'Don';t let the bastards grind you down.' I guess we thought we were pretty smart, back then."
I force a smile, but it's all before me now. I can see why she wrote that, on the wall of the cupboard, but I also see that she must have learned it, here, in this room. Where else? She was never a schoolboy. With him, during some previous period of boyhood reminiscence, of confidences exchanged. I have not been the first then. To enter his silence, play children's word games with him.
"What happened to her?" I say.
He hardly misses a beat. "Did you know her somehow?"
"Somehow," I say.
"She hanged herself," he says; thoughtfully, not sadly. "That's why we had the light fixture removed. In your room." He pauses. "Serena found out," he says, as if this explains it. And it does.
If your dog dies, get another.
♥ "You want my life to be bearable to me," I say. It comes out not as a question but as a flat statement; flat and without dimension. If my life is bearable, maybe what they're doing is all right after all.
"Yes," he says. "I do. I would prefer it."
"Well then," I say. Things have changed. I have something on him, now. What I have on him is the possibility of my own death. What I have on him is his guilt. At last.
"What would you like? he says, still with that lightness, as if it's a money transaction merely, and a minor one at that: candy, cigarettes.
"besides hand lotion, you mean," I say.
"Besides hand lotion," he agrees.
"I would like..." I say. "I would like to know." It sounds indecisive, stupid even, I say it without thinking.
"Know what?" he says.
"Whatever there is to know," I say; but that's too flippant. "What's going on."
♥ Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloudcover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it's heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. Wool blanket. I wish I could see in the dark, better than I do.
Night has fallen, then.
♥ He stops, looks up at this window, and I can see the white oblong of his face. Nick. We look at each other. I have no rose to toss, he has no lute. But it's the same kind of hunger.
♥ He put his arms around me. We were both feeling miserable. How were we to know we were happy, even then? Because we at least had that: arms, around.
♥ I'll take care of it, Like said. And because he said it instead of her, I knew he meant kill. That is what you have to do before you kill, I thought. You have to create an it, where none was before. You do that first, in your head, and then you make it real. So that's how they do it, I thought. I seemed never to have known that before.
Luke found the cat, who was hiding under our bed. They always know. He went into the garage with her. I don't know what he did and I never asked him. I sat in the living room, hands folded in my lap. I should have gone out with him, taken that small responsibility. I should at least have asked him about it afterwards, so he didn't have to carry it alone; because that little sacrifice, that snuffing out of love, was done for my sake as well.
That's one of the things they do. They force you to kill, within yourself.
♥ The moment of betrayal is the worst, the moment when you know beyond any doubt that you've been betrayed: that some other human being has wished you that much evil.
It was like being in an elevator cut loose at the top. Falling, falling, and not knowing when you will hit.
♥ Now we come to forgiveness. Don't worry about forgiving me right now. There are more important things. For instance: keep the others safe. Don't let them suffer too much. If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves.
I suppose I should say I forgive whoever did this, and whatever they're doing now. I'll try, but it isn't easy.
♥ Maybe I don't really want to know what's going on. Maybe I'd rather not know. Maybe I couldn't bear to know. The fall was a fall from innocence to knowledge.
♥ My mother did not knit or anything like that. But whenever she would bring things back from the cleaner's, her good blouses, winter coats, she'd save up the safety pins and make them into a chain. Then she'd pin the chain somewhere – her bed, her pillow, a chair-back, the oven mitt in the kitchen – so she wouldn't lose them. Then she'd forget about them. I would come upon them, here and there in the house, the houses; tracks of her presence, remnants of some lost intention, like sings on a road that turns out to lead nowhere. Throwbacks to domesticity.
♥ "It's a risk," I say. "More than that." It's my life on the line, but that's where it will be sooner or later, one way or another, whether I do or don't. We both know this.
"You might as well," she says. Which is what I think too.
♥ The problem wasn't only with the women, he says. The main problem was with the men. There was nothing for them any more.
Nothing? I say. But they had...
There was nothing for them to do, he says.
They could make money, I say, a little nastily. Right now I'm not afraid of him. It's hard to be afraid of a man who is sitting watching you put on hand lotion. This lack of fear is dangerous.
It's not enough, he says. It's too abstract. I mean there was nothing for them to do with women.
What do you mean? I say. What about all the Pornycorners, it was all over the place, they even had it motorized.
I'm not talking about sex, he says. That was part of it, the sex was too easy. Anyone could just buy it. There was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for. We have the stats from that time. You know what they were complaining about the most? Inability to feel. Men were turning off on sex, even. They were turning off on marriage.
♥ I like to know what you think, his voice says, from behind me.
I don't think a lot, I say lightly. What he wants is intimacy, but I can't give him that.
There's hardly any point in my thinking, is there? I say. What I think doesn't matter.
Which is the only reason he can tell me things.
Come now, he says, pressing a little with his hands. I'm interested in your opinion. You're intelligent enough, you must have an opinion.
About what? I say.
What we've done, he says. How things have worked out.
I hold myself very still. I try to empty my mind. I think about the sky, at night, when there' no moon. I have no opinion, I say.
He sighs, relaxes his hands, but leaves them on my shoulders. He knows what I think, all right.
You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better.
Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?
Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.
♥ I look up at the ceiling, the round circle of plaster flowers. Draw a circle, step into it, it will protect you. From the centre was the chandelier, and from the chandelier a twisted strip of sheet was hanging down. That's where shew was swinging, just lightly, like a pendulum; the way you could swing as a child, hanging by your hands from a tree branch. She was safe then, protected altogether, by the time Cora opened the door. Sometimes I think she's still in there, with me.
I feel buried.
♥ We turn in at a more modern building, a huge banner draped above its door – WOMEN'S PRAYVAGANZA TODAY. The banner covers the building's former name, some dead President they shot. Below the red writing there's a line of smaller print, in black, with the outline of a winged eye on either side of it: GOD IS A NATIONAL RESOURCE.
♥ It's like Janine though to take it upon herself, to decide the baby's flaws were due to her alone. But people will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning. No use, that is. No plot.
♥ She does that again and I'm not here, Moira said to me, you just have to slap her like that. You can't let her go slipping over the edge. That stuff is catching.
♥ Now comes the main item. The twenty Angels enter, newly returned from the fronts, newly decorated, accompanied by their honour guard, marching one-two one-two into the central open space. Attention, at ease. And now the twenty veiled daughters, in white, come shyly forward, their mothers holding their elbows. It's mothers, not fathers, who give away daughters these days and help with the arrangement of the marriages. The marriages are of course arranged. These girls haven't been allowed to be alone with a man for years; for however many years we've all been doing this.
Are they old enough to remember anything of the time before playing baseball, in jeans and sneakers, riding their bicycles? Reading books, all by themselves. Even though some of them are no more than fourteen – Start them soon is the policy, there's not a moment to be lost – sill they'll remember. And the ones after them will, for three or four or five years; but after that they won't. They'll always have been silent.
♥ We've given them more than we've taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don't you remember the singles bars, the indignity of high-school blind dates? The meat market. Don't you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn't? Some of them were desperate, they straved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.
He waved a hand at his stacks of old magazines. They were always complaining. Problems this, problems that. Remember the ads in the Personal columns, Bright attractive woman thirty-five... This way they all get a man, nobody's left out. And then if they did marry, they could be left with a kid, two kids, the husband might just get fed up and take off, disappear, they'd have to go on welfare. Or else he's stay around and beat them up. Or if they had a job, the children in daycare or left with some brutal ignorant woman, and they'd have to pay for that themselves, out of their wretched little paycheques. Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as others. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they're protected, they can fulfil their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement. Now, tell me. You're an intelligent person, I like to hear what you think. What did we overlook?
Love, I said.
♥ It's safe to talk again, the Commander has finished the main ritual and they're doing the rings, lifting the veils. Boo, I think in my head. Take a good look, because it's too late now. The angels will qualify for Handmaids, later, especially if their new Wives can't produce. But you girls are stuck. What you see is what you get, zits and all. But you aren't expected to love him. You'll find that out soon enough. Just do your duty in silence. When in doubt, when flat on your back, you can look at the ceiling. Who knows what you may see, up there? Funeral wreaths and angels, constellations of dust, stellar or otherwise, the puzzles left by spiders. There's always something to occupy the inquiring mind.
Is anything wrong, dear? the old joke went.
♥ It doesn't do any good to talk like that, I say, feeling nevertheless the impulse to giggle. But I still pretended to myself, then, that we should try to preserve something resembling dignity.
You were always such a wimp, Moira says, but with affection. It does so do good. It does.
And she's right, I know that now as I kneel on thus undeniably hard floor, listening to the ceremony drone on. There is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities, about those in power. There's something delightful about it, something naughty, secretive, forbidden, thrilling. It's like a spell, of sorts. It deflates them, reduces them to the common denominator where they can be dealt with. In the paint of the washroom cubicle someone unknown had scratched: Aunt Lydia sucks. It was like a flag waved from a hilltop in rebellion. The mere idea of Aunt Lydia doing such a thing was in itself heartening.
So now I imagine, among these Angels and their drained white brides, momentous grunts and sweating, damp furry encounters; or, better, ignominious failures, cocks like three-week-old carrots, anguished fumblings upon flesh cold and unresponding as uncooked fish.
♥ The arrival of the tray, carried up the stairs as if for an invalid. An invalid, one who has been invalidated. No valid passport. No exit.
♥ I could just sit here, peacefully. I could withdraw. It's possible to go so far in, so far down and back, they could never get you out.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Fat lot of good it did her.
♥ Falling in love, I said. Falling into it, we all did then, one way or another. How could he have made such light of it? Sneered even. As if it was trivial for us, a frill, a whim. It was, on the contrary, heavy going. It was the central thing; it was the way you understood yourself; if it never happened to you, not ever, you would be like a mutant, a creature from outer space. Everyone knew that.
Falling in love, we said; I fell for him. We were falling women. We believed in it, this downward motion: so lovely, like flying, and yet at the same time so dire, so extreme, so unlikely. God is love, they said once, but we reversed that, and love, like Heaven, was always just around the corner. The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh.
And sometimes it happened, for a time. That kind of love comes and goes and is hard to remember afterwards, like pain. You would look at the man one day and you would think, I loved you, and the tense would be past, and you would be filled with a sense of wonder, because it was such an amazing and precarious and dumb thing to have done; and you would know too why your friends had been evasive about it, at the time.
There is a good deal of comfort, now, in remembering this.
Or sometimes, even when you were still loving, still falling, you'd wake up in the middle of the night, when the moonlight was coming through the window onto his sleeping face, making the shadows in the sockets of his eyes darker and more cavernous than in daytime, and you'd think, Who knows what they do, on their own or with other men? Who knows what they say or where they are likely to go? Who can tell what they really are? Under their daily-ness.
Likely you would think at those times: What if he doesn't love me?
Or you'd remember stories you'd read, in the newspapers, about women who had been found – often women but some times they would be men, or children, that was the worst – in ditches or forests or refrigerators in abandoned rented rooms, with their clothes on or off, sexually abused or not; at any rate killed. There were places you didn't want to walk, precautions you took that had to do with locks on windows and doors, drawing the curtains, leaving on lights. These things you did were like prayers; you did them and you hoped they would save you. And for the most part they did. Or something did; you could tell by the fact that you were still alive.
♥ If you don't like it, change it, we said, to each other and to ourselves. And so we would change the man, for another one. Change, we were sure, was for the better always. We were revisionists; what we revised was ourselves.
It's strange to remember how we used to think, as if everything were available to us, as if there were no contingencies, no boundaries; as if we were free to shape and reshape forever the ever-expanding perimeters of our lives. I was like that too, I did that too. Luke was not the first man for me, and he might not have been the last. If he hadn't been frozen that way. Stopped dead in time, in mid-air, among the trees back there, in the act of falling.
In former times they would send you a little package, of the belongings; what he had with him when he died. That's what they would do, in wartime, my mother said. How long were you supposed to mourn, and what did they say? Make your life a tribute to the loved one. And he was, the loved. One.
Is, I say. Is, is, only two letters, you stupid shit, can't you manage to remember it, even a short word like that?
♥ Waiting is also a place: it is wherever you wait.
♥ I have a fork and a spoon, but never a knife. When there's meat they cut it up for me ahead of time, as if I'm lacking manual skills or teeth. I have both, however. That's why I'm not allowed a knife.
♥ Still there is something attractive in the idea. I've never worn anything remotely like this, so glittering and theatrical, and that's what it must be, an old theatre costume, or something from a vanished nightclub act; the closest I ever came were bathing suits, and a camisole set, peach lace, that Luke bought for me once. Yet there's an enticement in this thing, it carries with it the childish allure of dressing up. And it would be so flaunting, such a sneer at the Aunts, so sinful, so free. Freedom, like everything else, is relative.
♥ I didn't have any great plan; it wasn't an organized thing, like they thought, though when they were trying to get it out of me I made up a lot of stuff. You do that, when they use the electrodes and the other things. You don't care what you say.
♥ "Moira," I say. "You don't mean that." She is frightening me now, because what I hear in her voice is indifference, a lack of volition. Have they really done it to her then, taken away something – what – that used to be so central to her? But how can I expect her to go on, with my idea of her courage, live it through, act it out, when I myself do not?
I don't want he to be like me. Give in, go along, save her skin. That is what it comes down to. I want gallantry from her, swashbuckling, heroism, single-handed combat. Something I lack.
..Here is what I'd like to tell. I'd like to tell a story about how Moira escaped, for good this time. Or if I couldn't tell that, I'd like to say she blew up Jezebel's, with fifty Commanders inside it. I'd like her to end with something daring and spectacular, some outrage, something that would befit her. But as far as I know that didn't happen. I don't know how she ended, or even if she did, because I never saw her again.
♥ I breathe in the soap smell, the disinfectant smell, and stand in the white bathroom, listening to the distant sounds of water running, toilets being flushed. In a strange way I feel comforted, at home. There is something reassuring about the toilets. Bodily functions at least remain democratic. Everybody shits, as Moira would say.
I sit on the edge of the bathtub, gazing at the black towels. Once they would have excited me. They would have meant the aftermath, of love.
♥ I think of my mother, sweeping up deadly toxins, the way they used to use up old women, in Russia, sweeping dirt. Only this dirt will kill her. I can't quite believe it. Surely her cockiness, her optimism and energy, her pizzazz, will get her out of this. She will think of something.
But I know this isn't true. It is just passing he buck, as children do, to mothers.
I've mourned for her already. But I will do it again, and again.
♥ No preliminaries; he knows why I'm here. He doesn't eve say anything, why fool around, it's an assignment. He moves away from me, turns off the lamp. Outside, like punctuation, there's a flash of lightning; almost no pause and then the thunder. He's undoing my dress, a man made of darkness, I can't see his face, and I can hardly breathe, hardly stand, and I'm not standing. His mouth is on me, his hands, I can't wait and he's moving, already, love, it's been so long, I'm alive in my skin, again, arms around him, falling and water softly everywhere, never-ending. I knew it might only be once.
♥ "There's no need to be brutal," I say. Possibly he feels used. Possibly he wants something from me, some emotion, some acknowledgement that he too is human, is more than just a seedpod. "I know it's hard for you," I try.
He shrugs. "I get paid," he says, punk surliness. But still makes no move.
I get paid, you get laid, I rhyme in my head. So that's how we're doing to do it.
♥ "Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder." We're quoting from late movies, from the time before. And the movies then were from a time before that: this sort of talk dates back to an era well before our own. Not even my mother talked like that, not when I knew her. Possibly nobody ever talked like that in real life, it was all a fabrication from the beginning. Still, it's amazing how easily it comes back to mind, this corny and falsely gay sexual banter. I can see now what's for, what it was always for: to keep the core of yourself out of reach, enclosed, protected.
I'm sad now, the way we're talking is infinitely sad: faded music, faded paper flowers, worn satin, an echo of an echo. All gone away, no longer possible.
♥ He begins to unbutton, then to stroke, kisses beside my ear. "No romance," he says. "Okay?"
That would have meant something else, once. Once it would have meant: no strings. Now it means: no heroics. It means: don't risk yourself for me, if it should come to that.
And so it goes. And so.
I knew it might only be once. Goodbye, I thought, even at that time, goodbye.
♥ All I can hope for is a reconstruction: the way love feels is always only approximate.
♥ I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light, if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia. I wish it had more shape. I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one's life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow.
Maybe it is about those things, in a sense; but in the meantime there is so much else getting in the way, so much whispering, so much speculation about others, so much gossip that cannot be verified, so many unsaid words, so much creeping about and secrecy. And there is so much time to be endured, time heavy as fried food or thick fog; and then all at once these red events, like explosions, on streets otherwise decorous and matronly and somnambulent.
I'm sorry there is so much pain in this story. I'm sorry it's in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force. But there is nothing I can do to change it.
I've tired to put some of the good things in as well. Flowers, for instance, because where would we be without them?
♥ By telling you anything at all I'm at least believing in you, I believe you're there, I believe you into being. Because I'm telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.
♥ I want to see what can be seen, of him, take him in, memorize him, save him up so I can live on the image, later: the lines of his body, the texture of his flesh, the glisten of sweat on his pelt, his long sardonic unrevealing face. I ought to have done that with Luke, paid more attention, to the details, the moles and scars. The singular creases, I didn't and he's fading. Day by day, night by night he recedes, and I become more faithless.
♥ The fact is that I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the border to freedom. I want to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him.
Telling this, I'm ashamed of myself. But there's more to it than that. Even now, I can recognize this admission as a kind of boasting. There's pride in it, because it demonstrates how extreme and therefore justified it was, for me. How well worth it. It's like stories of illness and near-death, from which you have recovered, like stories of war. They demonstrate seriousness.
Such seriousness, about a man, then, had not seemed possble to me before.
Some days I was more rational. I did not put it, to myself, in terms of love. I said I have made a life for myself, here, of a sort. That must have been what the settlers' wives thought, and women who survived wars, if they still had a man. Humanity is so adaptable, my mother would say. Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.
♥ The crimes of others are a secret language among us. Through them we show ourselves what we might be capable of, after all. This is not a popular announcement. But you would never know it from Aunt Lydia, who smiles and blinks as if washed in applause. Now we are left to our own devices, our own speculations. The first one, the one they're now raising from her chair, black-gloved hands on her upper arms: reading? No, that's only a hand cut off, on the third conviction. Unchastity, or an attempt on the life of her Commander? Or the Commander's Wife, more likely. That's what we're thinking. As for the Wife, there's mostly just one thing they get salvaged for. They can do almost anything to us, but they aren't allowed to kill us, not legally. Not with knitting needles or garden shears, or knives purloined from the kitchen, and especially not when we are pregnant. It could be adultery, of course. It could always be that.
Or attempted escape.
♥ The smell makes me feel sick.
But also I'm hungry. This is monstrous, it nevertheless it's true. Death makes me hungry. Maybe it's because I've been emptied; or maybe it's the body's way of seeing to it that I remain alive, continue to repeat its bedrock prayer: I am. I am. I am, still.
I want to go to bed, make love, right now.
I think of the word relish.
I could eat a horse.
♥ We go to Milk and Honey, and to All Flesh, where I buy chicken and the new Ofglen gets three pounds of hamburger.
♥ Dear God, I think, I will do anything you like. Now that you've let me off, I'll obliterate myself, if that's what you really want; I'll empty myself, truly, become a chalice. I'll give up Nick, I'll forget about the others, I'll stop complaining. I'll accept my lot. I'll sacrifice. I'll repent. I'll abdicate. I'll renounce.
I know this can't be right but I think it anyway. Everything they taught at the Red Centre, everything I've resisted, comes flooding in. I don' want pain. I don't want to be a dancer, my feet in the air, my head a faceless oblong of white cloth. I don't want to be a doll hing up on the Wall, I don't want to be a wingless angel. I want to keep on living, in any form. I resign my body freely, to the uses of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject.
I feel, for the first time, their true power.
♥ I consider these things idly. Each one of them seems the same size as all the others. Not one seems preferable. Fatigue is here, in my body, in my legs and eyes. That is what gets you in the end. Faith is only a word, embroidered.
♥ "Trust me," he says; which in itself has never been a talisman, carries no guarantee.
But I snatch at it, this offer. It's all I'm left with.
♥ It appears that certain periods of history quickly become, both for other societies and for those that follow them, the stuff of not especially edifying legend and the occasion for a good deal of hypocritical self-congratulation. If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgement upon the Gileadeans. Surely we have learned by now that such judgements are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand.
♥ As I have said elsewhere, there was little that was truly original with or indigenous to Gilead: its genius was synthesis.
♥ As the architects of Gilead knew, to institute an effective totalitarian system or indeed any system at all you must offer some benefits and freedoms, at least to a privileged few, in return for those you remove.
In this connection a few comments on the crack female control agency know as the "Aunts" is perhaps in order. Judd – according to the Limpkin material – was of the opinion from the outset that the best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves. For this there were many historical precedents; in fact, no empire imposed by force or otherwise has ever been without this feature: control of the indigenous by members of their own group. In the case of Gilead, there were many women willing to serve as Aunts, either because of a genuine belief in what they called "traditional vales," or for the benefits they might thereby acquire. When power is scarce, a little of it is tempting.
♥ Both of these gentlemen were known to have been childless, and thus eligible for a succession of Handmaids. Professor Wade and I have speculated in our joint paper, "The Notion of 'Seed' in Early Gilead," "that both – like many of the Commanders – had come in contact with a sterility-causing virus that was developed by secret pre-Gilead gene-splicing experiments with mumps, and which was intended for insertion into the supply of caviar used by top officials in Moscow. (The experiment was abandoned after the Spheres of Influence Accord, because the virus was considered too uncontrollable and therefore too dangerous by many, although some wished to sprinkle it over India.)
♥ As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.